For some, sports is a field with very little on the mind. For others, it’s completely different.
Annie Vernon, a former Olympic rower and now a sports journalist, has written a book about what takes place between the ears of elite athletes. Called Mind Games, it has a clear premise: “Everyone has the physical tools—it’s the mental tools that separate the good from the great.”
The book is not a practical guide on how to train or toughen your mind, nor is it an academic contribution to the field of sport psychology. Instead, it is like being inside a locker room, full of anecdotes from professional athletes, coaches, and sports psychologists. The book’s methods resemble William S. Burroughs’s cut-up technique, in which the author cut up stories and interviews. But unlike Burroughs, Vernon arranges them in order.
Readers get access to experiences and reflections from triathletes, rowers, boxers, football players, etc., whose comments are often put into perspective by sports psychologists.
Mind Games is a book aimed at other athletes, or perhaps people who are new to the field of sport psychology. The book’s writing style is both personal and jovial. For instance, the author is funny and self-ironic, especially in her self-referential footnotes. This can be appealing or the opposite, depending on the reader. Personally, I felt that it took out some of the intensity from the ideas’ presentation; I was in the locker room with all of these amazing athletes but without the sweat and nerves.
The book can also be read as a collage of locker room idioms such as “You’re either that person who wants to be best or you’re not. You’re either a chicken or a pig”—“In sport there is no hidden places”—“Being prepared is the best psychological weapon you can have.”
Vernon succeeds in showing the relevance of these expressions while also stressing, several times, that there is no one way to play the mind game. It depends on your personality.
Still, since “our mind dominates our body,” what matters is how you move from being involved in your sport to being committed. The thread throughout Vernon’s organization of these personal stories goes something like this: Many athletes have a clear experience of when “the penny’s got the drop,” and they just know when this is it. That is, this is where they move from being involved to being committed. Like a love affair.
Another common characteristic for athletes—the thing that probably helps the penny to drop—is their competitiveness. Some are competitive in all aspects of life, while some only when it comes to performing in their desired discipline. However, most are competitive in all aspects, even when playing Trivial Pursuit. This drive to win is also what sets the less committed apart from those who are (see also my essay Lance Armstrong as Teacher on will, strength, performance enhancing drugs and ethics).
The really committed also know how to say no to other activities. They know how to stay focused. They know this because they are both intrinsically and extrinsically motivated. That is, they compete with themselves and against others. A lovely quote from the book says: “Of course it’s amazing to be the favorite. Because it means you’re better than anyone else to date.”
Vernon suggests that elite athletes are a little odd. They have to live like monks: accepting many boring routines, keeping their minds inclined toward positivity even when there are setbacks, and being mindful and self-aware. “Becoming good at learning how to do the process comes from years of reflection and self-awareness,” she writes.
Lastly, one of the great mental challenges is how to gain confidence. Training is one way: practice, practice, practice. As Vernon writes: “The kind of people who become elite athletes will have a world-class work ethic.” Another element is a positive mind that is capable of boosting yourself up, almost to the level of self-deception, and always seeing problems as fixable challenges.
All of these steps lead to a greater likelihood of performance excellence, when one has to perform.
If you’re new to the field of coaching or sport psychology, the book can be read as a light buffet of ideas. And if you’re an ambitious athlete, you will probably find it inspiring.
Finn Janning, PhD, philosopher and writer. The review was first published in Metapsychology, Volume 23, Issue 29.